Firefly, part 3: The movie and River’s feminist journey

Joss Whedon, USA, 2005
Viewed on Blu-ray, August 5

First things first; if you haven’t watched the show yet, you should probably not read this post. That probably goes for the movie as well, because at this point I don’t recommend seeing the film without watching the the show first.

The fans were lucky to get more, but we weren’t too lucky. As I said previously, it would have been better for Whedon to have been given a finite set of episodes to tell a full story with idea pacing. Instead, we got a two-hour conclusion with a significant visual upgrade (so there was some consolation, certainly).

Structurally, however, this unanticipated shift in medium caused Whedon to actually take a step backwards in terms of character development, particularly in the case of River Tam (Summer Glau). This is something I’ve been forced to acknowledge particularly in light of my friend Stacy’s objections in response to my first post:

protecting River forms the backbone of no less than five out of thirteen episodes, plus the theatrical movie. That’s an awful lot of rescuing for a feminist hero. Whedon did alright with Buffy, but even she was messed up over some vampire with a soul, so much so that she ran away in one season. I get it that he attempted to at least, but the attempt could have followed through a big better.

Here’s the thing; in the last episode of the series, “Objects in Space,” River, having previously been quite vulnerable due to all the government experiments she has undergone, has what really should have been her last “is she too dangerous for us to keep aboard” moment at the beginning, and then, when a menacing (and quirky) bounty hunter (Richard Brooks) comes aboard, River finally leaps into decisive action, protecting the entire crew in an effective, if also kooky, fashion.

Had the show gone on, I believe that Whedon and his writers would have used the last nine episodes of Season 1 to continue to show more of River’s inherent strength that the Alliance had tried, ultimately in vein, to squelch. That was to be the feminist message that Whedon was trying to convey, however imperfect (and I do see it as at least a bit imperfect). Things didn’t work out that way.

Instead, film not only goes back on what was shown in “Objects in Space,” but to some extent actually reenacts it. Serenity introduces a determined Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of the Alliance, who begins a relentless pursuit of River (there are many odd parallels between him and Jubal, such as the fact that both are black, but that’s beyond my scope here). The film is almost entirely about the “dark secret” behind the Alliance, which obviously was supposed to be gradually teased out over one or two seasons, perhaps with more layers to it than what could fit in a feature film.

Whedon uses River’s backsliding (triggered, admittedly, by the Operative’s devious subliminal messages) to get us to this point, but he also re-stages her struggle with instability (and eventual, hyper-heroic triumph over it) for the benefit of the hoped-for section of the filmgoing audience that hadn’t picked up the show, but who nonetheless needed to be involved in this important journey of a character who was emphasized to no small degree on the movie’s poster.

By the end of the film, we get the feeling that River has purged herself of her demons (the burden of unwanted secrets, the psychic overload that comes from confronting pure evil), and we see her in a surprisingly prominent position on the crew (in part due to a new vacancy). I found this closing sequence quite poignant, mostly because the promise that the ship would keep on flying can obviously only be filled in our imagination: Serenity cost $39 million to make and only grossed $38 million worldwide.

Did Whedon just assume he’d get to show more of River? I think, perhaps, he just thought that showing us that she’d triumphed was enough. The thing is, it’s hard for many, such as my friend Stacy, to see the strength in a character when you keep promising us that her self-realization is right around the corner! The lesson here is that what you actually show us is almost as important as what you continue to suggest.


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